Spain is a country that can steal your heart, one round of tapas at a time. Each of the country’s 17 autonomous communities features a vibrant regional heritage that comes through in its cuisine. As the capital of Spain, Madrid holds a population of 3.1 million with 6 million tourists arriving each year. A sprawling city with many neighborhoods, it can be hard to know where to go if you are visiting the city and looking to get out of the tourist loop, especially if you are staying in a touristy area. On my visits to Madrid, I’ve learned it doesn’t take much to slip down a side street and find a place that not only is off the beaten path but sometimes is in plain sight. Here are five places that are not to miss…and you won’t feel like a tourist.
La Casa del Abuelo
“The House of the Grandfather” has been a Madrid institution for over 100 years, and while they have three locations across the city, the original location on Calle de Victoria is truly special. The smells of grilled seafood will welcome you into this taverna. It’s a place where little has changed, which is part of its charm. I recommend the Gambas al ajillo with a chato (small glass) of house red wine, which is affectionately known as “El Abuelo.” The sweet, heavy wine pairs well with the salty and sharp flavors of this dish. For me, eating this is part of being in Madrid. It’s the experience of grabbing a spot at the marble counter, watching the chef cook your meal, and throwing your shrimp shells in the trough that runs along the bottom of the bar. The gambas al ajillo is presented in a clay dish right from the grill, with a generous slice of bread to sop up the garlic-infused oil. All you need is the patience to wait until the oil stops bubbling. I promise it’s worth the wait.
Tucked away on a side street that’s minutes away from the Madrid Opera House, it takes a minute to find El miniBAR. Once you locate the entrance and descend the stairs, you will find a tiny bar: the cozy atmosphere and casual vibe which was a welcome sight after our day of sightseeing, and the space was full of locals. What El miniBAR lacks in size, they make up for in innovation: this is the place for tapas! The menu features creative and inventive tapas, offered in both portions for one or more people. We went with the Bretón: grilled goat cheese on tomato jam topped with coriander oil. This dish holds the distinction of winning a local tapas competition in the city, and I can see why. The flavors of salty, sweet and tangy came together as I ate some on its own and scooped some of it onto the accompanying bread. We also tried the crispy boar rolls with portabella mushroom sauce and rounded it out with a piece of cheesecake. El miniBAR is an excellent spot for a casual dinner, afternoon lunch or any time you are looking to escape the tourist fray.
Located a few blocks away from the famous weekly market El Rastro in the Embajadores neighborhood and a short walk from Plaza Mayor, we stopped into Bar Santurce for a quick lunch. Sitting down at the casual metal tables, this spot reminded me of a British fish fry spot. The menu, a small felt board, hanging by the counter, features about a dozen raciones (or a portion, more significant portion than a tapa) and a half a dozen options for bocadillo sandwiches. Open since 1977, Bar Santuce is known for its fried sardines, but we settled for pimientos de Padrón, an order of calamari and the house brew. As with many places in Spain, your beer options are limited to the one that’s on tap. In Madrid, it’s the regional lager Mahou Clasica.
This seafood restaurant is near the Plaza de España right off of the Grand Via. La Chalana features classic white tablecloths, impeccable service, and authentic cuisine from the Asturias, a seaside region located in the northwest corner of Spain. During my meal, we chose the prefix tasting menu, which included a small “barge” or tray of fresh prawns, shrimp, cream of leek soup topped with Iberico ham, and thin slices of mojama, (Spanish cured tuna). Additional courses included braised beef cheeks, braised veal and rounded up by a dessert to share. At a reasonable €40, the menu is generally for two, but the staff graciously allowed my friends and me to split it for three. We did not walk away hungry! The generous portions, paired with traditional Asturian cider known as Sidra, rounded out the evening.
Chocolateria de San Gines
Are you looking to experience the Madrileño specialty, churros con chocolate any time you’d like? This spot is for you! Located a short walk from Puerto del Sol, this café is not only the oldest chocolate shop in Madrid but is also open 24 hours a day. Step inside the Chocolateria de San Gines, and you will see its timeless kelly green interior, soft velvet seats and marble tables…and many ways to eat chocolate! They have been making and selling churros con chocolate and other deserts since 1894. If you are not looking for churros con chocolate, the rest of the menu offers porras, which are the thicker and longer cousin to churros. If you are not in the mood for chocolate, you can even order your churros and a café con leche for dipping. These are perfect for sharing, but I can speak from experience that one person can finish an order of churros with no problem.
Stephanie Gravalese is a food and travel writer based in The Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where she’s improving her pasta making skills. Keep with her on Instagram at @stephanitaeats.